• Burnaby Beacon
  • Posts
  • Mask mandate returns to BC; province unveils back-to-school details

Mask mandate returns to BC; province unveils back-to-school details

At a Tuesday morning press conference initially billed as an announcement on the province’s back-to-school plan for the K-12 and post-secondary systems, provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry also announced the return of a province-wide mask mandate less than 2 months after it was removed.

Starting today, British Columbians over age 12 must again wear masks in all indoor public spaces.

It comes days after Henry drew criticism from some for appearing, maskless, at a BC Lions game. She said then that the risk in that setting was low, and that she wanted to be careful about sending the “wrong message” about masking.

Henry told reporters that the reason for putting back in a province-wide mandate now is that the respiratory season is approaching.

“As we’ve monitored the things that have been happening through the summer, we know that people who are immunized, particularly in outdoor spaces, keeping distance—that risk of transmission is very, very low. But we also know that as we move into the fall, we’re starting to congregate more in indoor public spaces. And right now, we know that this virus is transmitting in some of those indoor public spaces,” Henry said.

“So this is an additional measure. We’ve said all along masks are one of the additional measures that we need in certain circumstances, particularly when we’re in places that may have poor ventilation, where we’re around people whose vaccine status we don’t yet know, when we’re in those situations where we can be in close contact with others over a period of time.”

Meanwhile, the mask mandate also applies to common areas of post-secondary campuses. In the K-12 system, all students Grade 4 and up and all staff and visitors must wear masks inside schools.

The BC Vaccine Card program announced Monday will apply to some areas of university campuses, including some types of student housing, cafeterias, pubs, fitness facilities, and indoor events. Post-secondary schools are also allowed to put in place their own rules requiring vaccinations in employees—but not in students.

“We have been working with the post secondary institutions across the province to have a consistent approach … to ensure that those important educational opportunities are available for young people,” Henry said.

“The experience we heard across the board last year was [that it] was very challenging. So these are the measures to put in place to try and to ensure we can get back to that all important in campus learning that is needed for young people across the province.”

The omission of requirements for students in classrooms to be vaccinated—something that dozens of Canadian universities outside BC have required—is one that has some members of the SFU community irked.

Professor of public health sciences Scott Lear told the Beacon that while he’s pleased with the mask mandate and the fact that vaccines are required to access many services on campus, which he hopes would bump up the student vaccination rate anyway, not requiring all students to be vaccinated still puts the greater community at risk.

“Many students come to campus, and they have unvaccinated siblings at home or vulnerable, older relatives in the same household, and so they could unknowingly transmit the virus to those family members,” Lear said.

He said he wants SFU leadership to be actively advocating for a mandate to be put in place, and said a lot of his colleagues and students feel the same.

“I’m actually disappointed with the leadership at SFU … Our administrative leadership has been very superficial in how they’ve been participating in these discussions, in contrast to the UBC president, Dr. Ono, who came out publicly saying he wants a student-wide, university-wide vaccine mandate and mask mandate,” he said.

“SFU has been quiet, which is surprising because our president does have a nursing background … I don’t know what conversations have transpired behind closed doors. I’m not privy to that. But as an employer, I find it concerning where we don’t feel that our voices are heard.”

Lear said he finds the argument that the province isn’t requiring all students to be vaccinated before they go to campus to make sure education is accessible for all a bit disingenuous, given that there are already significant barriers to people accessing a university education.

He said apart from the financial burden of paying for tuition, there are also geographical barriers brought on by a full return to campus—including students having to transit for hours or pay exorbitant parking fees on campus, sometimes for just 1 or 2 classes a day.

“And the converse is we shouldn’t have to risk our health to get an education. That should be predominant, as opposed to sound bites of ‘vaccination shouldn’t prevent access to education.’”

The SFU Faculty Association has publicly called for mandatory vaccinations for anyone visiting or attending campus, as has the SFU Teaching Support Staff Union and the SFU Students’ Society.

SFSS president Gabe Liosis wrote on Twitter that the mandate must apply to students and staff in all lectures, classrooms, and labs with exemptions for those who aren’t able to be vaccinated.

“Vaccines are our most powerful tool in curbing the spread of COVID-19. Choosing not to mandate vaccines in universities because it would create barriers to post secondary education is a political decision, and not based upon any science or data,” Liosis tweeted.

“To avoid vaccination status becoming a barrier to returning to campus, frequent and accessible vaccine clinics must be provided on campus for those who are unvaccinated — which is already being offered at every uni. So why is it so hard to mandate vaccines?”